Tan Kah Kee, Aw Boon Haw and the Second Sino-Japanese War [Photo story]

When Japan attacked China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia made contributions to China’s war efforts. Among the most prominent community leaders were Tan Kah Kee and Aw Boon Haw, who corralled donations and made separate visits to Chongqing. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao takes us back to that period and shows us the atrocities of war and the indomitable human spirit reflected in old photos.
Tan Kah Kee (L) and Aw Boon Haw made major contributions to China's resistance efforts during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Tan Kah Kee (L) and Aw Boon Haw made major contributions to China's resistance efforts during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

During the difficult days of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), prominent overseas Chinese leaders Tan Kah Kee and Aw Boon Haw went to Chongqing to show their support for China. At the time, the capital of the Republic of China was moved to Chongqing, and the people there welcomed Tan and Aw, making it a big event in the war. The support of overseas Chinese — cash donations, spreading the word, even sending young people from Nanyang (Southeast Asia) to help with logistics — was a major contribution to China’s war efforts. Today, this heroic chapter in history is recorded in all of China’s books and memorials relating to the war.

Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident on 7 July 1937, full-blown war broke out between China and Japan. Japan was a military power that was superior to China in modernisation, military training, and national defence. After Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Manchu imperial regime and established the Republic of China in 1911, the country was still in chaos and certainly in no shape to throw off the shackles of imperialism and colonialism.

It was not until 1930, when the new-generation Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek united China through military means, that the military, economy, community, and education were brought in line. With the help of a German military advisory team, China trained and equipped 20 army divisions German-style, and planned a long-term war strategy against future invasion by Japanese troops. The core idea was to “buy time with space” ⁠— to use China’s vast land space to drag out the fight, and to absorb any heavy casualties until there was a fundamental shift in the international situation and enemy strength.

Battle of Shanghai, 1937: Chinese army instructors fitted out German-style go through an inspection, ready to fight the Japanese elite troops on the front line. In the 1930s, the Republic of China government purchased a large number of weapons and equipment from Germany, and invited German military advisors to help with training. Twenty divisions were fitted with modern weapons, and became an important force in China’s war efforts.

In 1937, Japan attacked China, with an optimistic prediction that China would be defeated within three months. They did not expect to meet with stubborn Chinese resistance. Japanese and Chinese troops fought for three months in Shanghai, with both sides suffering heavy losses. Subsequently, the Japanese moved to take over Nanjing through a cruel, vengeful massacre. The Chinese government followed the plan of resisting and wearing down the Japanese troops with the blood of the military and the people, while buying time to move industrial machinery and strategic assets to the southwest in preparation for a long war.

In November 1937, after the Japanese took Shanghai, they followed the Yangtze River to Nanjing, slaughtering civilians as they took various cities along the way. This photo shows the tragic fate of Chinese civilians, tied up by the Japanese in a city near Jiangnan.

From July 1937 to October 1938, the Japanese fought and overcame Beiping (now Beijing), Shanghai, Nanjing, and eastern China, and went on to Guangzhou and Wuhan, their strategic endpoint. As long as the Chinese did not surrender or negotiate for peace, Japan could only keep fighting. The problem was that Japan had limited troops and resources. With each city they conquered, they had to leave some troops behind. By the time they arrived in Wuhan, they no longer had enough troops to continue a large-scale offensive, and both sides went into a long deadlock. And with China’s capital in Chongqing, protected by the natural barrier of Sichuan’s hills and rivers, Japan’s mechanised troops could not penetrate the city’s line of defence, and could only engage with China’s defensive troops on the outskirts of Sichuan. At this time, all foreign embassies were moved to Chongqing, and stood with China in the fight against fascism.

Black smoke rises as the Japanese bomb the Jiangbei district in Chongqing, June 1940. The Japanese bombarded Chongqing several times, and the people came to regard it as part of daily life. The war also led to related literature, films, and paintings, in a symbol of the times.

The plight of the Chinese troops and the civilians gained the world’s attention and won widespread sympathy. Overseas Chinese did not hesitate to give their full support to China’s war efforts, especially in the Straits colonies.

Tan Kah Kee and Aw Boon Haw came to the fore as leaders of the overseas Chinese community. Tan was born in 1874 in Xiamen, Fujian province. He came to Nanyang with his father at the age of 17 to learn to be a trader. He started his own business soon after and grew his business empire over a period of 30 odd years to become the owner of rubber plantations around Nanyang, as well as of businesses in many other industries. Tan became one of Singapore’s wealthiest merchants.

Tan was very interested in the fate of China. He joined Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary group, and funded revolutionary activities. He felt that China’s backwardness was due to a lack of modern education, and so he gave money to set up modern schools in Xiamen and Singapore, including schools in his hometown of Jimei, Xiamen University, as well as the Chinese High School and Nan Chiau High School in Singapore.

After the war broke out, Tan immediately led the Singapore China Relief Fund and later became president of the Southeast Asia Federation of the China Relief Fund (南洋华侨筹赈祖国难民总会). He himself made a large contribution to the war effort, and called on overseas Chinese to also contribute whatever they could in cash or kind. Over 3,000 young Chinese returned to China as drivers and mechanics, to help with transportation between Yunnan and Myanmar. Tan’s philanthropy greatly raised the capabilities and morale of the Chinese troops.

As for Aw Boon Haw, his family originally hailed from Yongding county in Fujian province. He was born in Myanmar in 1882, the son of a Chinese medical hall owner. After he took over his father’s business, he developed Tiger Balm, which became a household name all over Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and the US. Subsequently, Aw moved his company headquarters to Singapore, then Hong Kong.

Besides medical products, Aw was also passionate about newspapers, and became a newspaper magnate by starting several publications in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong, including Sin Chew Jit Poh, Sin Pin Jit Poh (now Guang Ming Daily), Star News, Sing Sian Daily, and Sing Tao Daily. He also made large donations to schools and charitable organisations. When the war broke out, Aw's donations matched that of Tan Kah Kee, and both were overseas pillars of China’s war efforts.

In March 1940, Tan led a delegation to Chongqing. Aw did the same in February 1941. Both men represented the united war efforts of Chinese both in and out of China, which was highly symbolic in bringing together Chinese all over the world in their tough fight against Japan, before Pearl Harbour brought the US into the war.

It has been 80 years since Tan and Aw visited Chongqing. After World War II, the Southeast Asian colonies of the Western powers gained independence, and the new generation of Chinese in Southeast Asia made it their priority to build up the politics, society, as well as culture and education of the places where they settled down. But the admirable spirit of these pioneers who made contributions to their homeland lived on. In particular, despite his many businesses, Tan Kah Kee led a simple life, believing that everybody is part of a wider community. In the end, he gave all his wealth towards culture, education, and philanthropy, helping the poor and doing good for the community, and becoming a lasting role model.

tan kah kee
In March 1940, Tan Kah Kee was in good spirits when he led a delegation to Chongqing, where he received a warm welcome. Besides visiting Republic of China government leaders, Tan also got a better idea of the people’s lives. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) even invited him to Yan’an, which left a deep impression on him. After Tan returned to Singapore, he made several public speeches, giving his impressions of the Republic of China government and the CCP leaders. He was always prominently involved in China’s politics; when it came to China’s war efforts, he was firmly opposed to any compromise measures before Japanese troops pulled out of Chinese territory.
tan kah kee
As soon as Tan Kah Kee arrived in Chongqing, he was surrounded by a welcoming crowd. The trip symbolised the unity of overseas Chinese with China’s war efforts, and boosted the morale of the Chinese. As Tan clearly showed that he stood with China’s war efforts, when the Japanese took Singapore in February 1942 and engaged in retaliatory killing of Chinese, Tan fled to Indonesia, where he hid for three years until the final victory.
aw boon haw
In February 1941, Aw Boon Haw arrived in Chongqing. Aw was the creator of Tiger Balm and became a well-known entrepreneur. He also had investments in several newspapers and founded a newspaper group. He made large donations to China’s war efforts as well as cultural, educational, and philanthropic organisations, and was considered a philanthropist in China.
aw boon haw
The people of Chongqing welcoming Aw Boon Haw with placards. Like Tan Kah Kee, Aw also made large donations to China’s war efforts, but unlike Tan, he claimed to be uninterested in politics, and did not get involved with China’s political parties, moving in different directions from Tan.
marco polo bridge
The Chinese 29th Route Army holding their lines during the Marco Polo Bridge incident, 7 July 1937. When a Japanese soldier went missing during a military exercise in Beiping (now Beijing), the Japanese troops stationed there asked for permission to enter Wanping to conduct a search. The Chinese army refused, and an armed conflict broke out, becoming a full-blown war.
red cross
In 1937, following the Marco Polo Bridge incident, the Japanese exerted pressure on China by attacking Shanghai, which grew to become the intense Battle of Shanghai. The city was densely populated, and was also where the Western powers had stationed their troops, besides having a large foreign population. Many Western diplomats, settlers, and reporters were witnesses to this intense battle. The photo shows the Red Cross in Shanghai engaging in aid efforts on the front line, and helping to transport refugees.
great world
On 14 August 1937, thousands were tragically killed when the Great World Amusement Centre in Shanghai was accidentally bombed by the Chinese Air Force in an attempt to get at the Japanese. This was one of the terrible costs of China’s war efforts.
battle of shanghai
In the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, China mobilised newly equipped troops in a fierce urban battle against the Japanese. The built-up environment meant that the mechanised Japanese troops could not work their full power. This battle lasted for three months, and the Chinese troops put up a tough fight that exceeded Japanese expectations. The war lasted for years instead of being settled quickly.
On 27 December 1937, the Japanese made a grand entrance after they took the Chinese capital of Nanjing. Iwane Matsui, commander of the Central China Area Army (on horseback), proudly led the troops into the city. But although the Japanese took Nanjing, the Chinese army and civilians did not give in — the war had only just started.
nanjing massacre
In late 1937, after the Japanese captured Nanjing, they embarked on a retaliatory massacre. This photo was taken by a Japanese army doctor and released only after the war. It shows Japanese troops bayoneting Chinese prisoners of war, with new recruits being ordered to practise on them. Such photos are a harrowing reminder of the atrocities of war.
In 1938, refugees set up wooden beds under a train that has pulled into Sichuan. Chinese civilians fled to Chongqing by any means they could find over land or water.
In the autumn of 1939, in the first Battle of Changsha, Chinese troops launched a large-scale counter-offensive, with a stalemate after 1938. The Japanese were unable to gather sufficient troops for a large-scale attack on Chongqing, and could only engage in smaller skirmishes with Chinese troops on the outskirts. Hunan and Hubei provinces, near to Sichuan, went through seven years of fighting before the Japanese were finally defeated.
In September 1939, the Japanese engaged in large-scale bombing of Changsha. The Japanese troops were unable to directly attack Chongqing, and so they launched air attacks on Hunan and the southwestern cities of China, in an attempt to dent the morale of the Chinese.
YMCA members in Chongqing distributing refreshments to army troops on their way to the front line in the north, 1939. These volunteer groups went deep into the combat zone, with many Chinese youths heading to the front lines to take care of the troops and help boost morale. The eight years of war became a shared memory for many.
A children’s propaganda team sings resistance songs in Chongqing to spark villagers’ spirit against the enemy, 1940. 
In March 1941, Chongqing celebrated the second anniversary of a national campaign to boost morale. The education ministry organised a huge music festival to demonstrate the people’s indomitable spirit. Facing wartime difficulties, such shows of patriotism highly encouraged them.

Digital coloring: Chen Yijing, Xu Danyu, Xu Danhan

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